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Commentary on Orientalium Ecclesiarum

Daniel J. Castellano


I: Particular Churches or Rites
II: Preservation of Spiritual Heritage of Eastern Churches
III: Eastern Rite Patriarchs
IV: The Discipline of the Sacraments
V: Divine Worship
VI: Relations with the Brethren of the Separated Churches

The Second Vatican Council’s decree on the Eastern Churches, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, was promulgated after the synod’s third session (1964), together with Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio, the two great documents that defined the Council’s ecclesiology. Although Orientalium Ecclesiarum is much more limited in scope, being directed only to Eastern Rite Catholics, it nonetheless contains statements of the Council’s broader ecclesiology, allowing us to correct some common misconceptions.

I: Particular Churches or Rites

The decree summarizes the relevant portion of the Council’s ecclesiology as follows:

The Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government and who, combining together into various groups which are held together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. (OE, 2)

Note that the Catholic Church is here unequivocally equated with the Mystical Body of Christ, and that this Catholic Church is constituted by unity not only in faith, but also in the “same government,” and the faithful are “held together by a hierarchy.” This is fully consistent with our interpretation of Lumen Gentium, which identifies the Catholic Church as the sole existent of which “Church of Christ” is predicable, and further asserts that the heavenly Church and hierarchical Church are not distinct entities. (LG, 8)

The universal Church is constituted of particular Churches, which are commonly called Rites, to reflect their distinct liturgical traditions. This variety of tradition does not harm the Church’s unity, “rather it manifests it, for it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place.” (OE, 2) In Lumen Gentium, the Council stated that variety within the Church contributes to unity as each member contributes what is lacking in other parts of the Body. Accordingly, the Council here asserts its desire for the various Rites to retain their distinctive traditions. At the same time, however, they should adapt these traditions—liturgical, disciplinary, and spiritual—to the needs of time and place.

The identification of the Eastern Rites as “Churches” is not new. It can be found, for example, in Pope Leo XIII’s apostolic letter Orientalium Dignitas (1894), which extols the dignity of the Eastern Churches, and takes measures to ensure that Latin clergy do not obstruct the government and growth of those Churches. “Church” is a more proper term than “Rite,” since a Church can have more than one rite, as is the case with the Latin Church.

All the particular Churches, of the East or the West, are subject to the “pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff.” Since no particular Church has jurisdiction over another, but all are directly governed by the Pope, “They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world.” (OE, 3) This equality of status for both East and West is remarkable, since the only Western particular Church or Rite is the Latin Rite. The Council is here placing the Latin Rite (which includes the Roman, Mozarabic, and Ambrosian liturgies) on equal terms of dignity with the Eastern Rites.

This might seem to be a departure from the Church’s traditional preference for the Roman liturgical form, but we must recall that such preference was only imposed within Latin Rite Christendom by the Council of Trent, not on the Eastern Rite Catholics. In the eighteenth century, it is true, there arose the idea that the Roman Rite, as the “pre-eminent rite” (ritus praestantior), ought to be imposed to some degree on the Eastern Rites. This latter position is rejected by the Council. Accordingly, in the post-conciliar period, the Eastern Churches were able to remove unnecessary Latinisms from their liturgies, keeping only those changes needed for theological clarity and sacramental validity.

The equality of dignity among the different particular Churches is remarkable, considering that the patriarch of the Latin Church is none other than the Pope. Here the Council is effectively making a distinction between the Pope’s primacy as universal pastor and his role as Latin patriarch. In the latter capacity, he governs a particular Church that is no higher in dignity than any other Church. That is to say, as patriarch, he is of the same rank as other patriarchs. He is superior to the other patriarchs only as universal pastor, but not because the Latin Church has any superior dignity over the other patriarchates.

By declaring all the particular Churches to be equal in dignity, the Council is separating the doctrinal issue of Roman primacy from the historically contingent ranking of the patriarchates. At the same time, it is strenuously asserting the Roman primacy, making subjection to the Pope the very basis of the equality of the particular Churches.

While Orientalium Ecclesiarum applies only to the Churches in communion with Rome, reconciliation with the separated Orthodox was never far from the minds of the Council Fathers. Here the Churches are offered an equality of dignity among all the patriarchates, being subject to Rome not on account of any pretended superiority of the Latin Church, but solely with respect to the Pope’s personal office as the successor of Peter. It is in this vein that we should understand Pope Benedict XVI’s eventual renunciation of the title “Patriarch of the West,” to further distance the papacy from Latin specificity.

In order to advance the interests of all the particular Churches, the Council proposes that hierarchs with jurisdiction in the same area should meet regularly with one another, and that all clerics and seminarians should be instructed in the rites and in interritual norms. Every Catholic, including those converting from other Christian Churches, “must retain his own rite wherever he is, must cherish it and observe it to the best of his ability,” though dispensations from this duty can be issued by the Holy See. (OE, 4) It had long been the Church’s practice to respect the ritual traditions of converts, and here the Council confirms this commitment, so the separated Orthodox know they have no reason to fear any effort to undermine their liturgical, disciplinary or spiritual traditions.

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II: Preservation of Spiritual Heritage of Eastern Churches

In confirmation of the above, the Council “solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines...” (OE, 5) They “should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, and... these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement.” (OE, 6) Here we have an assurance that the norms of liturgical reform in the Latin Church are not to be imposed on the Eastern Churches without their consent. Each may impose its own reform in accordance with organic improvement, “and, if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions.” The canonical autonomy of the particular Churches is to be respected in the implementation of liturgical reform.

Those who, by reason of their office or apostolic ministries, are in frequent communication with the Eastern Churches or their faithful should be instructed according as their office demands in the knowledge and veneration of the rites, discipline, doctrine, history and character of the members of the Eastern rites. (OE, 6)

This exhortation applies not only to neighboring clergy of the Latin Rite, but especially to those dealing directly with the concerns of the Eastern rites, such as the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. Even Latin missionaries should promote Eastern rite Catholicism where appropriate. “Religious and associations of the Latin Rite working in Eastern countries or among Eastern faithful are earnestly counseled to found houses or even provinces of the Eastern rite...”

It must be admitted that this vision of the Council has not been implemented. The change of the Latin rite into the vernacular has sometimes drawn believers away from the Eastern rites. Further, the Eastern Churches receive directives from the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, whose members include Latin Rite clergy with little knowledge of Eastern Catholicism, while the Eastern patriarchs have only an advisory role. This situation is incompatible with the dignity and autonomy indicated in Orientalium Ecclesiarum. Ironically, this over-centralization is often motivated not by conservatism, but by a desire to impose some of the post-conciliar reforms on the Eastern Rites.

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III: Eastern Rite Patriarchs

For the first time, an ecumenical council offers a definition of the ancient title of “patriarch”:

By the name Eastern patriarch, is meant the bishop to whom belongs jurisdiction over all bishops, not excepting metropolitans, clergy and people of his own territory or rite, in accordance with canon law and without prejudice to the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. (OE, 7)

A particular Church or rite is monarchically constituted, much like a local particular Church is united under a single bishop. “Patriarch” is a canonical title, defined by canonical jurisdiction over many local churches constituting a particular Church or Rite. In fact, the Council’s definition is taken directly from the canons promulgated in 1957 by Pope Pius XII in the motu proprio called Cleri Sanctitate (can. 216).

Patriarchal authority is not strictly territorial, for a patriarch has jurisdiction even over a bishop of his rite “appointed outside the territorial bounds of the patriarchate.” (OE, 7)

The equality of patriarchal dignity does not abolish the traditional precedence of honor. “Though some of the patriarchates of the Eastern Churches are of earlier and some of later date, nonetheless all are equal in respect of patriarchal dignity, without however prejudice to the legitimately established precedence of honor.” (OE, 8) The original precedence of honor among the three ancient patriarchates was: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch. The later patriarchates of Constantinople and Jerusalem then followed. In the fourth century, the see of Constantinople sought to establish itself as second in dignity only to Rome, placing itself above the more venerable patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch. The papacy finally granted this second highest dignity to the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople in 1215, and then to Greek Patriarch during the attempted reunion at Florence in 1439. In the canons of Pope Pius XII, the order of precedence among Eastern patriarchs is: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. (Cleri Sanctitate, can. 219)

With this distinction between patriarchal dignity and honor, we can understand why the Eastern Catholics regard the Patriarch of the West as the “first among equals”: first in honor, but equal in patriarchal dignity. The Pope’s universal jurisdiction over the Church derives not from his patriarchal rule over a particular Church, but from his status as the successor of St. Peter or supreme pontiff. We can therefore depict three types of status relations between the Pope and the Eastern patriarchs:

Relations between Pope and Patriarchs

The Roman patriarchate’s precedence in honor is not the basis of the Pope’s universal jurisdiction. On the contrary, that precedence is a consequence of ancient respect for the fact that the Church of the West is home of the successor of St. Peter. It is less ancient than Antioch, yet is first in honor because it is the seat of the universal pastor.

The Council, much like Pope Pius XII in Cleri Sanctitate, studiously avoids enumerating Rome among the patriarchates. It mentions the Pope only as the “Roman Pontiff,” never as the “Patriarch of the West.” This is to dissociate the Pope from purely Latin concerns, in order to emphasize that his primacy as supreme pontiff does not entail a primacy of the Latin Church.

Remarkably, the Council proposes restoring the “rights and privileges” of the patriarchs “that obtained in the time of union between East and West; though they should be adapted somewhat to modern conditions.” (OE, 9) These rights include “the right of establishing new eparchies and of nominating bishops of their rite within the territorial bounds of the patriarchate,” though the Pope reserves the right to intervene. This is not a complete restoration of pre-schism conditions, of course, since the patriarchs are now permitted merely to nominate bishops, while Rome must confirm them.

What has been said about patriarchs applies also to “major archbishops,” who control particular Churches or rites. (OE, 10)

The Council also calls for new patriarchates “to be established either by an ecumenical council or by the Roman Pontiff.” (OE, 11) Shortly after the Council, Joseph Ratzinger articulated a need “to separate more clearly the office proper to the successor of Peter from the patriarchal office and, where necessary, to create new patriarchates and separate them from the Latin church.” This would restore the ancient structure of the Church as a community of particular Churches headed by patriarchs. The logical choice for such new patriarchates might be in the Far East, where liturgical and cultural traditions are sufficiently distinct to merit a distinct rite and government. Such a project has never been realized, however, and the vast majority of the Church remains in the Latin patriarchate.

In fact, no new patriarchates were created since the Council, and on the contrary, several have been suppressed. The Latin rite titular patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch were suppressed in 1964, to avoid giving needless offense to the Eastern Orthodox. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI renounced the use of the title “Patriarch of the West,” though he did not thereby abolish the Latin Church as a particular Church. In practice, the Latin Church is governed directly by the Pope as Supreme Pontiff, in cooperation with the national conferences of bishops. These national conferences act as de facto sub-patriarchates, analogous to the regional synods of antiquity, though they have no binding authority over bishops without the approval of the Pope. The activity of these conferences diminishes the incentive for nations or regions to desire their own patriarchates. At the same time, the government of the Church remains more centralized under Rome, without canonically independent patriarchates.

The post-conciliar abandonment of any endeavor to enhance the status of patriarchs is reflected also in the government of the Eastern Churches. When Pope John Paul II made an Eastern Rite patriarch the head of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in 2000, the new prefect resigned as patriarch and became a Roman cardinal. While this practice may have been motivated by an understandable desire to maintain equality of dignity among Eastern patriarchs, at the same time it sustains the impression that the Eastern Churches are subordinate to the Latin hierarchy, when by right they should be subject only to the Roman Pontiff as universal pastor.

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IV: The Discipline of the Sacraments

In recognition of their dignity as particular Churches, the Council removed some unnecessary Latin restrictions on the Eastern rite sacraments. In particular, the sacrament of Confirmation could now be administered by priests as well as bishops in the Eastern Rites, as long as they use chrism blessed by a patriarch or bishop. (OE, 13) In the Latin Church, per decree of the Council of Trent, only bishops are ordinary ministers of Confirmation, while priests are extraordinary ministers, administering the sacrament only by special delegation of the bishop. The Greek Orthodox Church has long permitted priests to be ordinary ministers of Confirmation, and the Catholic Church always recognized the validity of that practice. The Council now grants to the Eastern Rite Catholic priests the ministry traditionally permitted by their rite, dispensing them from the Tridentine norm. The ability of priests to administer confirmation is a question of canonical discipline, not of sacramental validity or any doctrine of faith. In both the Latin and Greek forms, the authority of the bishop is conveyed at least through the blessing of chrism.

Eastern Rite priests are permitted to administer baptism to the faithful of any rite, including the Latin, and Latin priests may do likewise, though always with respect to regulations of common and particular law. (OE, 14)

The Council also specifies the liturgical obligations of the Eastern faithful, requiring them to attend Divine Liturgy on every Sunday or feast day, or, in accordance with their rite, celebrate the Divine Office (i.e., the horologion). This obligation can be met anytime between the Vespers of the vigil to the end of the Sunday or feast day. (OE, 15) In the Eastern tradition, public participation in the Liturgy of the Hours is more prominent than in the West. In some places, such as Russia, attending Vespers is required in order to receive communion the following day. The Council urges the faithful to receive communion weekly, even daily if possible.

Every priest who is granted the faculty to hear confessions without restriction may hear the confession of any Catholic in his geographic territory, regardless of rite, unless the hierarch of a given rite forbids this in his jurisdiction. (OE, 16)

The Council also calls for the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Eastern Churches. (OE, 17) No dispensation from the rule of celibacy is mentioned, since this was never a requirement in Eastern tradition. The status of the subdiaconate and minor orders is left to the legislation of each particular Church, since these orders are not of divine institution. Eastern Catholics still have active minor orders, and count the subdiaconate among these. In Latin Catholicism, the minor orders had effectively been abandoned for centuries, and were conferred only upon seminarians progressing to the priesthood. The subdiaconate was considered a major order by the Latins, but is not thereby properly of divine institution. For this reason, the Church could lawfully suppress the subdiaconate and minor orders in the Latin Rite (Ministeria quaedam, 1972), while permitting the Eastern Churches to keep these orders as they saw fit.

To prevent clandestine marriages, the Council of Trent declared null and void any future marriage that was contracted without the presence of a priest and two or three witnesses. (Tametsi, Session 24, ch. I) These requirements were imposed on the Eastern Churches in Pope Pius XII’s motu proprio Crebrae allatae sunt (1949), which specified the canons for Eastern matrimony. The Second Vatican Council, in order to minimize questions of the validity of marriages with separated Orthodox, specified that Eastern rite marriages are valid as long they are contracted in the presence of a priest. They are illicit, but not invalid, if any other aspect of the canonical form (e.g., the presence of witnesses) is not met. (OE, 18)

These current norms for the legal form of matrimony are specified in Canons 1108-1123 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Following the text of Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Canon 1127 makes an exception for marriages of Catholics to non-Catholics of an Eastern rite, which are bound to keep the canonical form only for liceity, not validity.

In Canon 1117, the 1983 code specified that the canonical form applied only where at least one party was a Catholic who “has not defected from [the Catholic Church] by a formal act.” In other words, those who formally defected from the Catholic Church were no longer bound by the canonical form. This exception was not mentioned in the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, since it is against Eastern tradition to officiate the marriages of those who have willfully left the Church. Moreover, the exception created pastoral problems, since it was difficult to determine factually when a formal act of separation occurred, and actually encouraged Eastern Catholics to separate from the Church (sincerely or insincerely) in order to be dispensed from the canonical form. Accordingly, Pope Benedict XVI removed this exception from canon law in the motu proprio Omnium in mentem (2009).

Since the sacraments are the same for the whole Church and belong to the divine deposit, it is only for the supreme authority of the Church to approve or define the requirements for their validity; it is for the same or another competent authority... to decide what pertains to their licit celebration... (1983 CIC, c. 841)

It belongs to the Church’s supreme authority (the Popes and ecumenical councils) to determine the conditions for sacramental validity. The conditions of liceity may be reserved to the supreme authority or governed by the particular Churches. In practice, these conditions are specified by the 1983 Code of Canon Law for the whole Church, and in the 1990 Code of Canons for Eastern Churches. Both these codes are promulgated by papal authority, since only the supreme authority can establish common norms for all the Eastern Churches.

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V: Divine Worship

Applying similar principles of authority, the Council declares that only the Pope or an ecumenical synod can alter or suppress feast days common to all the Eastern Churches, while the patriarchal synod also has such authority for feasts specific to a particular Church. (OE, 19)

The Council does not prescribe a common date for the celebration of Easter (though it has the authority to do so), but instead allows the patriarchs to come to an agreement by mutual consent. (OE, 20)

Those living outside the territory of their Rite have may observe the liturgical seasons of the area in which they live. Families of mixed rite are permitted to observe the seasons of a single rite if they choose. (OE, 21)

Eastern clerics and religious should celebrate the Divine Office (horologion) in accordance with their custom. The faithful are also encouraged to participate as they are able. (OE, 22)

The patriarch and his synod, or a synod of all the hierarchs in a particular Church, have the authority “to regulate the use of languages in the sacred liturgical functions and, after reference to the Apostolic See, of approving translations of texts into the vernacular.” (OE, 23)

To varying degrees, the Eastern Catholics already had their liturgy in the “vernacular,” in the sense of a language that is intelligible to most people, though not necessarily identical with common speech. The traditional Latin liturgy was unintelligible because Western European languages had changed dramatically, supplanting Latin with the Romance and Germanic languages. In the East, by contrast, Greek, Syriac and other languages retained their basic form, so the ancient liturgies could still be understood for the most part. Yet there are notable exceptions: several Eastern liturgies use Old Slavonic, while traditional languages such as Greek are not necessarily understood by younger generations in immigrant communities. Translations to the vernacular in such cases are left to the discretion of each particular Church.

The Council prescribes very little in the way of liturgical reform for the Eastern Churches, beyond general calls for them to preserve their traditions. This is in striking contrast with the extensive overhaul prescribed in Sacrosanctum Concilium for the Latin Church to adjust its liturgy to modern needs. Yet surely, by similar logic, the comparably ancient Eastern rites should also be in need of updating. Nonetheless, the near total ignorance of Eastern rites by most of the Council Fathers prevented them from making any determinate prescriptions. This is just as well, since any mutilation of the Eastern liturgies would have only further alienated the Orthodox.

It might be argued that there is a common denominator of anti-Latin sentiment in the reformists’ ambition to overhaul the Latin liturgy, while purging the Eastern liturgies of Latinisation. While such a misguided sentiment might be attributable to some members of the Council, especially those who were averse to Scholasticism, it cannot be said to reflect the Council’s teaching as a whole. As noted in the commentary on Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s official teaching repeatedly praises ancient Latin tradition, and in some places attempts to restore it more purely to its early medieval form. There is nothing untoward about the Fathers attempting to reform the liturgy with which they were familiar, while permitting the respective authorities of the Eastern Churches to make similar decisions for their liturgies. The esteem the Council shows for Eastern liturgies is nothing new, as Pope Leo XIII had already put a halt to the Latinisation of those rites in Orientalium Dignitas.

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VI: Relations with the Brethren of the Separated Churches

The Latin Fathers seem to have been interested in the Eastern Churches primarily as a bridge with the Orthodox. This is indicated by the stipulation in the decree’s conclusion: “All these directives of law are laid down in view of the present situation till such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches come together into complete unity.” (OE, 30) Ecumenism is never far from their hearts when thinking of Eastern Catholics, so it is only natural that this decree should end with prescriptions for facilitating this eventual reunion. Orientalium Ecclesiarum should be understood in the context of the more complete and detailed teaching on ecumenism given in Unitatis Redintegratio, approved in the same session and referenced in this decree. (OE, 24)

“If any separated Eastern Christian should, under the guidance of the grace of the Holy Spirit, join himself to the unity of Catholics, no more should be required of him than what a bare profession of the Catholic faith demands.” (OE, 25) Note that ecumenism is not opposed to the idea of the Orthodox converting to Catholicism, but rather such an event is the most perfect fulfillment of this movement. Such conversion is not coerced, but is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Council contrasts the “unity of Catholics” with the “separated” status of the Orthodox, consistent with its faith (expressed in Lumen Gentium) that only the Catholic Church has the unity which is the mark of the Church of the Creed. The Church’s desire for ecumenical unity entails that she should impose no unnecessary barriers to reunion, and so demands only a “bare profession of the Catholic faith.” The 1990 Code of Canons for Eastern Churches says that an Orthodox convert is “to be received into the Catholic Church with only the profession of the Catholic faith, after doctrinal and spiritual preparation according to each one's condition.” Required doctrines include the jurisdictional primacy and ex cathedra infallibility of the Pope, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, and the procession of the Holy Spirit through the Father and the Son (though originating in the Father alone).

Clerics who convert from the Orthodox Church are allowed to exercise their Orders, in accordance with the regulations established for that particular Church.

Common participation in worship (communicatio in sacris) which harms the unity of the Church or involves formal acceptance of error or the danger of aberration in the faith, of scandal and indifferentism, is forbidden by divine law. On the other hand, pastoral experience shows clearly that, as regards our Eastern brethren, there should be taken into consideration the different cases of individuals, where neither the unity of the Church is hurt nor are verified the dangers that must be avoided, but where the needs of the salvation of souls and their spiritual good are impelling motives. For that reason the Catholic Church has always adopted and now adopts rather a mild policy, offering to all the means of salvation and an example of charity among Christians, through participation in the sacraments and in other sacred functions and things. (OE, 26)

The Council explicitly rejects religious indifferentism, and maintains that there can be no communion in worship where this involves formally accepting heresy, endangering orthodox faith, or even causing scandal. This is not merely a prudent discipline, but is against divine law! Nonetheless, with the Orthodox, these concerns are not always present, insofar as they do not profess any heresy and they maintain valid sacraments. The Council now endeavors, in continuity with past mildness shown to the Orthodox, to define some conditions in which community of worship is permissible.

Without prejudice to the principles noted earlier, Eastern Christians who are in fact separated in good faith from the Catholic Church, if they ask of their own accord and have the right dispositions, may be admitted to the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick. (OE, 27)

The Council makes some of the Sacraments available to those Orthodox “who are in fact separated in good faith,” i.e., not by a voluntary formal act of separation, but rather by virtue of having been born or raised in an Orthodox tradition, without prejudice against the Catholic Church. Innocent of formal heresy, they may receive these sacraments as long as this practice does not give scandal to others or create the appearance of religious indifferentism.

Conversely, “Catholics may ask for these same sacraments from those non-Catholic ministers whose churches possess valid sacraments, as often as necessity or a genuine spiritual benefit recommends such a course and access to a Catholic priest is physically or morally impossible.” (OE, 27) Again, this practice is subject to the divine law mentioned in Article 26. This permission is not given gratuitously, for in many regions of Eastern Catholicism, churches are so sparsely distributed that often only an Orthodox church is in proximity. This permission is only to be given for real need, where there is no danger of the faithful lapsing from the Catholic faith.

Applying the same principles discussed above, Catholics and Orthodox may participate together “in sacred functions, things and places,” if there is a “just cause.” (OE, 28) The notes to the decree clarify that this article is referring to communion in extra-sacramental matters, as sharing of the sacraments was already discussed.

Any type of communio in sacris, whether sacramental (OE, 27) or extra-sacramental (OE, 28), “is put into the care and control of the local hierarchs...” (OE, 29) Ecumenism is not something the Latin Church forces upon the Eastern Catholics, but rather the local ordinaries, on their own or in conference with each other, are permitted to implement these conciliatory policies as they judge to be prudent.

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Orientalium Ecclesiarum is noteworthy primarily for (1) its exaltation of the equal dignity and relative autonomy of the Eastern patriarchates and (2) its specific prescriptions for increased communion with the separated Orthodox. While this brief document lacks the extensive ecclesiological discussion of Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio, its treatment of these two matters gives insight into how the Council interpreted and applied its ecclesiology.

The decree’s treatment of the patriarchates makes clear that the particular Churches are essential to the Church’s constitution. They exist by right, not by concession, and on equal terms as regards dignity and jurisdiction, being answerable to none but the supreme authority in the Church. The Pope is considered only in his role as Supreme Pontiff, not as Latin patriarch, to avoid giving any impression that the Latin Church enjoys any jurisdictional superiority over the Eastern Churches. The relative autonomy of the Eastern Churches would be matched by that of future patriarchates, as envisioned by the Council. Thus the Church might adapt to the diversity of the world’s cultures by organizing herself in the ancient system of patriarchates and autonomous eparchies.

This relative decentralization and patriarchal egalitarianism was designed not only for the good of Catholics with non-Latin traditions, but also to assure the separated Orthodox that they had little to fear, in terms of loss of autonomy, from communion with Rome. To strengthen the spirit of good will, the Council permitted as much communion in sacred matters with the Orthodox as divine law would allow. This was done not to promote indifferentism, but to remove needless causes of conflict, in the hope of eventual reunion, which is alluded to in several places. (OE 24, 25, 30)

In the post-Conciliar period, only the second aim of Orientalium Ecclesiarum was effectively implemented. There is increased communion in sacramental and extra-sacramental practices between Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, mainly to meet the pastoral needs occasioned by geographic dispersion. Yet the expected restoration of patriarchal status never really occurred, as the Eastern patriarchates tend to be governed under a common rule imposed by the supreme authority through the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, which imposes even the norms of ecumenism and other reforms. With this degree of congregational oversight, the patriarchs scarcely resemble authority figures second only to the Pope. The patriarchal model has also been effectively abandoned in the West, which instead relies on the national conferences of bishops, prescribed for implementing liturgical reform in Sacrosanctum Concilium, to serve as de facto sub-patriarchal synods, except that these have no binding juridical authority of their own. In effect, there is hardly any more legislative autonomy for the particular Churches now than before the Council.

The greatest obstacle to reunion with the Orthodox is the fear that communion with Rome will imply the loss of all canonical autonomy. The Orthodox in general will not accept Roman primacy unless they can be persuaded that this supreme authority will be invoked only sparingly, when there is a real need, such as responding to a threat to unity in faith. As long as the Catholic Church is perceived to be over-centralized in her government, ecumenical gestures will likely be regarded with distrust and skepticism.

The post-Conciliar papacy, beginning with John Paul II, tended to consolidate legislative power in Rome, mainly in response to widespread dissidence among hierarchs in the industrialized West. When so many bishops cannot be trusted with their sacred duty to uphold Catholic faith and morals, it falls to the supreme authority to supply this deficiency, and ensure through common law that the rights of the faithful are secured.

Now that the turmoil of the post-Conciliar period has subsided, the Church might reconsider empowering existing and new particular Churches with more legislative authority, without fear that this will lead to mischief or schism. Many bishops already have legislative experience in an advisory capacity as members of the Synod of Bishops. It remains only for the Holy See to determine the prudence of establishing proper particular Churches with their own canonical authority.

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